Alcohol: calorie counting can damage your health

 

You’ve probably heard that red wine is good for heart health but may have also heard that alcohol also raises cancer risk. Drinking is bad for your liver but is part of the famed Mediterranean diet.

So, what gives? How can something be both beneficial and detrimental to our health?

Well, it all comes down to beverage choices, frequency of consumption, why you’re drinking, and which studies you read. Read on to see if your drinking is under control.

How much is too much?

Maybe you enjoy some wine with dinner or grab a beer with your buddies on the weekend. That’s not considered “at-risk” drinking, and has less evidence of harming your health. While there’s no established safe level of alcohol, the National Institutes of Health has developed some guidelines for what is considered at-risk or heavy drinking. So, check these guidelines against your own intake. Are you drinking too much?

  • Heavy drinking for men is more than 4 drinks on any day or 14 drinks in the whole week
  • Heavy drinking for women is more than 3 drinks on any day or 7 drinks in the whole week

(It’s higher for men because they are usually larger, and are better able to metabolize alcohol).

Maybe you’re wondering if you can stay dry all week and enjoy seven drinks on Saturday night. Nope, that’s more than three drinks per day and is considered heavy drinking. It’s also important to establish how many ounces constitute “one drink.” The Centers for Disease Control define a single serving of alcohol as:

  • Beer or wine cooler – 12 oz.
  • Malt liquor – 8 oz.
  • Wine – 5 oz.
  • 80 proof alcohol (like vodka or tequila) – 1.5 oz.
Are all drinks the same?

Okay, so hopefully you are drinking well within those limits. But you may be curious, “If I’m going to drink, is there a healthier choice?”

There really isn’t a “healthy drink”, since all alcoholic beverages contain ethanol, a type of alcohol that’s produced by fermenting fruit (wine), grains (beer and liquor), or other carb-containing foods. Heavy drinkers run a greater risk of developing liver disease, heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, stroke and several types of cancer. They also may have a harder time managing blood sugar and high blood pressure levels.

With that said, some drinks are marginally better than others if they contain less sugar and fewer calories. So, choose white wine (125 calories per 5 oz.) over a pina colada (260 calories per 5 oz.), and a simple tequila shot (97 calories per 1.5 oz.) over beer (150 calories per 12 oz). Are you curious how many calories are in your favorite drink? Find out here.

But red wine is healthy, right?

Maybe you imbibe because you’ve heard that red wine contains resveratrol, the prized antioxidant. It’s possible that the antioxidants in red wine may increase levels of “good” cholesterol and protect against “bad” cholesterol buildup. But grapes (and blueberries and cranberries) can do that too.

Bottom line: if you don’t drink, don’t start. Neither the American Heart Association nor the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend drinking wine just to prevent heart disease. If you do drink, cap it at a drink a day (for women), or two drinks for men.

The other thing to consider is that a 2017 report from the World Cancer Research Fund showed that drinking wine – or any other type of alcohol — can increase the risk of some types of cancer, including mouth, esophagus, liver, colon and breast. So even if wine has slight heart health benefits, it’s no good if it increases cancer risk, right? The evidence for alcohol and cancer risk shows that the more drinks you consume, the higher the risk of many types of cancer. Another benefit of drinking responsibly! 

Why are you drinking?

Of course, enjoying an occasional cocktail or glass of wine is NOT problematic drinking. But if you feel like you are drinking to cope with life, or to be the life of the party, your alcohol intake may be out of control.

Problem drinking is cropping up in college-age students. It’s being referred to as “drunkorexia,” a term that refers to skipping meals (or binging/purging) to reduce calorie intake from food, so you can make room for calories from alcohol instead. Studies show that drunkorexia is a stepping stone to the future development of both eating disorders and substance abuse disorders. If this sounds like you, speak to your doctor.

Another growing phenomenon is the normalization of drinking among new mothers as a way to cope with the trials of raising children. Memes like “sangria is fruit salad” and “you’re not drinking alone if your kids are home” are commonplace, and are masking a brewing problem: drinking a bottle of wine every day is heavy drinking, and it comes with associated health risks. It’s an addiction, and should be taken seriously. Again, if this sounds like you (even if it also sounds like all of the other moms), seek support.

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Cara Rosenbloom is a Registered Dietician, celebrated author and international columnist, active as a food blogger, recipe developer and nutrition educator.

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